BARRE — City councilors and some members of a newly formed citizens’ committee spent four hours over the weekend discussing the latest draft of a $10.7 million municipal budget.
Now comes the hard part.
Faced with a 7.7 percent spending increase, which all seem to agree is too rich for Barre’s blood, City Manager Steve Mackenzie, the committee, and the council must find a way to cut costs in hopes of avoiding what they fear could be a replay of the multi-vote budget debacle that occurred just last year.
The sweet spot, according to Mackenzie, would be a spending increase somewhere south of 5 percent. He said 4 percent would be even better, and if the manager was looking for an argument Saturday morning he didn’t get one from anyone huddled in council chambers.
However, that may be easier said than done as some councilors said they will advocate strongly for positions that aren’t yet reflected in the bottom line of a draft budget they were told is still very much a work-in-progress. Two new police officers are at the top of that list as is a new administrative position that council members have long argued would provide Mackenzie with some sorely needed support.
Although Mayor Thomas Lauzon made an early exit Saturday, he said he was “all ears” when it came to the new positions, but warned he would have a hard time supporting any of them if offsetting cuts could not be identified and the currently contemplated spending increase is not reduced.
Lauzon said he wasn’t sold on the need for additional police officers and feared including an administrative position that was a casualty of the budget process last year could provide an inviting target to those looking for a reason to vote against the budget.
“I’m not going to argue the need (for an assistant city manager) with you, but I think we got the answer to that question last year and we got our (expletive deleted) handed to us,” he said, referring to two failed attempts to persuade voters to approve a municipal budget last year.
That said, Lauzon indicated the council will lean heavily on the fledgling committee that is scheduled to begin its deliberations tonight, and meet again on Thursday before reporting its progress to the council on Saturday.
“Everything’s on the table,” Lauzon told the three committee members who attended Saturday’s session. “You’re not here for show. You’re here to do work.”
According to Lauzon, that includes evaluating staffing and sharing observations and recommendations with Mackenzie and the council.
“It is your responsibility to look at every department and make sure that we’re using labor dollars in the most efficient way possible,” he said.
Lauzon’s comments came in response to one committee member’s observation that the council failed to deliver on a promise it made in the run-up to the third, and ultimately successful, budget vote last May. Responding to questions involving the current structure of the police and fire departments, the council promised among other things to take a serious look at both, though John Hannigan said there was no evidence that actually happened.
“You as a council told the taxpayers: ‘Let’s pass this budget and we’ll have these answers in July,’” he said. “Well it’s January.”
Hannigan’s comment, Lauzon’s response and Councilor Michael Boutin’s suggestion the group discuss the matter behind closed doors, prompted Mackenzie to worry aloud that the conversation was heading in an unhelpful direction.
“This year that will kill us,” he warned.
If there was one point on which everyone seemed to agree, it was that avoiding the division that crept into the budget process a year ago was crucial to persuading voters to support the spending plan this year. Though that may require some yet-to-be-identified compromises, councilors and committee members agreed presenting a united front is imperative.
“My goal is to have a budget that passes the first time around,” said committee member Jeff Friot.
Given the current economic times Friot said that may make any new initiatives a tough sell.
“My concern is if we add things to the budget they (voters) will see the sticker price and just say ‘no’ because they don’t understand what goes into it,” he said during a sweeping discussion that touched on everything from parking fines and overtime to health insurance and cemetery maintenance.
One idea that was discussed, but didn’t appear to have much support, involved giving voters an opportunity to separately approve funding for two additional police officers and perhaps the assistant city manager.
Councilor Michael Smith was among those who argued that would be a mistake that could lead to voters feeling “duped.” If the committee and the council believe the new positions are important, he said, they should be included in the regular operating budget.
Smith did suggest the committee consider the possibility of partially funding the assistant city manager with some of the money that former Barre businessman Charlie Semprebon left the city following his death in 2009. Partially funding the position for the first year with some of the money Semprebon left the city would ease the tax impact of expanding the staff at City Hall.
Mackenzie said he welcomed the sort of “cold-eyed analysis,” the committee will bring to this year’s budget review. However, he predicted he would feel the same about the final product of those deliberations as he did about last year’s twice-defeated spending plan.
“It (the proposed spending increase) is entirely defendable,” he said. “The question is whether its ‘tolerable.’”
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